The perspective I share here is from a book called Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. It is a motivating paradigm that often helps me to see things in a new and creatively-minded light.
When children play, there are two types of games they might play – finite and infinite. Finite games are games that have an end goal. They are played for the purpose of winning. Examples of this might be tug-of-war, dodge ball, or capture the flag. These games have an object that, once achieved, ends the game.
Infinite games are played with the goal of continuing play. An example of this is pretend play games like “playing house.” There is no end goal; the purpose is the play itself. As play continues, rules may be changed, conditions invented, or new players and playthings introduced that help the play to continue. While finite games can be fun and rewarding, infinite games are where creativity is tapped and where players fully engage with each other socially. The power of this kind of play is that it provides full, deep engagement without a player feeling paralyzed by the need to reach a specific outcome.
This concept can be extended to a wider context. In life, there are many experiences in which we take part that have an end goal in mind. We may take a trip to the grocery store with the goal of buying milk. Once this is achieved, this particular “finite game” ends.
An example of an infinite game in life may be that of being a friend to someone. As you experience the relationship with your friend, you make plans with each other, you have disagreements and resolve them together, and you adjust your interactions along the way to help continue your friendship.
However, in life there are not always clear distinctions between finite and infinite “games.” Most of the time, in fact, the difference is in our own perception. We all probably know someone who has viewed a relationship as a finite game that is to be won instead of an ever-changing, flexible experience. The ability to fully engage and understand each other is lost in a perspective like this, and the relationship probably does not last.
We can consciously choose to perceive our experiences as parts of an infinite game. When we do this, we gain the freedom to respond flexibly. We become resilient when things don’t go as planned. We become creative when we reach a point we didn’t expect. We also develop stronger relationships with the people around us with whom we are playing as we elicit their help to continue to “play.” While someone with a finite mindset dwells on obstacles and gets bogged down by difficult situations, those with infinite mindsets are motivated to find solutions to problems so they can move on.
In creativity, we talk about affective skills that aid in creative thinking. Among these skills are dreaming, playfulness, sensitivity to environment, and tolerance for risk taking. From my point of view, these same skills are part of the “infinite mindset” Carse describes. It often takes creative thinking to see things with an infinite perspective and to continue finding ways to keep “the game” alive. When something unexpected comes up in life, it requires creativity and that infinite perspective to get around an obstacle, or, better yet, find a way to use that obstacle to propel yourself forward.
When we are playing an infinite game and have creativity as our main tool, we make the outrageous a reality and open ourselves to infinite possibility!